The explosion in illegal fireworks continued across the five boroughs this week, setting off car alarms, frightening pets, and keeping anxious residents awake into the early morning hours.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new task force on Tuesday to crack down on suppliers through out-of-state sting operations, but once the fireworks are on the streets and in the hands of residents, there’s not much the NYPD is going to do about it, outside of a “life-or-death situation,” according to the mayor and police sources.
New Yorkers have placed thousands of 311 calls this month to report the nearly non-stop blasts, a sharp rise over fireworks-related complaints in 2019. In the first three weeks of June alone, residents called 311 more than 8,000 times to report fireworks disturbances. That’s more than 300 times the number of complaints received over the same period last year.
The complaints have come in from across the city, with a high concentration in Central and East Brooklyn.
In response, de Blasio announced a task force made up of 10 officers from the NYPD Intelligence Bureau, 12 FDNY Fire Marshals, and 20 officers from the Sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The task force will target distributers and suppliers who transport large quantities of fireworks from out-of-state and re-sell them in New York City, where they’re illegal.
“The challenge with fireworks is that often young people fire them off and then leave immediately, so it’s very hard to find them and address it in real time in a way that would actually make a difference,” de Blasio said during the press conference.
Officer Bruno Pierre at the 67th Precinct in East Flatbush echoed the mayor, explaining that cops can’t issue a summons unless they catch someone in the act of lighting off fireworks.
“We come, they run,” he said. “If you say, there’s fireworks going off, by the time we get there there’s not much we can do.”
But after weeks of protests against police brutality, some residents question whether officers are making a real effort to enforce the anti-fireworks laws.
One Twitter user noted on Sunday that the fireworks on her block were coming from a building directly behind the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park.
“Officers outside seemed completely unbothered by it all,” the user tweeted.
Walked around the block to figure out who's responsible for these nightly fireworks.
Come to find out they're coming from the building directly behind the NYPD precinct. Officers outside seemed completely unbothered by it all. pic.twitter.com/Tx84alTwHZ
— Anne-Marcelle N. (@AnneMarcelleN) June 21, 2020
Another video shows a line of NYPD vans cruising through Harlem at 3am with their lights and sirens on as fireworks explode all around them.
— Jeo (@fromzerotojeo) June 22, 2020
Asked by a reporter whether, in light of videos like the ones above, officers are being asked to stop the perpetrators or let them go, De Blasio took offense.
“I don’t accept this frame of, oh you have a video of one thing that happened and it’s just that way. If any NYPD officer thinks something needs to be intervened in, it’s part of their professional discretion to make that distinction,” the mayor said.
Detective Vincent Martinos of the 71st Precinct in Crown Heights blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for the marked increase in fireworks this year, claiming officers were busy monitoring the protests when they should have been catching people smuggling fireworks into the city.
“All those cops who should have been watching the Jersey, Pennsylvania border were in Manhattan watching the protests,” he said.
DCPI, the NYPD’s public information office, could not provide information about past fireworks checkpoints and their success at keeping fireworks out.
Martinos also pointed the finger at the recent disbanding of the NYPD’s plainclothes unit, a decision that was made due to the unit’s outsized involvement in police shootings.
“With no more plain clothes officers to monitor it, you actually need to see someone light it, and a uniformed officer is not going to see that,” he said.
Some residents reported hearing fewer fireworks Monday night, but it’s unclear if NYPD involvement made the difference.
“We responded to all 311 complaints, as usual,” said an officer at the 76th Precinct in Cobble Hill. “If it’s still in progress or if it’s no longer going on, if we can determine where it’s going on, then we issue a citation.”
Whether the supplier-focused task force will make a dent in fireworks that are already widely available in the city, including on Craigslist, remains to be seen. De Blasio emphasized that he wants to target the “big fish” not “the kid on the corner,” and instead have officers focus on gun violence, which has been rising in the city, with 28 shootings over the weekend.
“I am concerned first and foremost with addressing the shooting problems we’re having, that’s where the central focus of the NYPD needs to be, on addressing that violence,” the mayor said.